In Defense Of… WCW Thunder
A version of this article originally appeared on 411mania.com and was updated for the book IN DEFENSE OF… EXONERATING PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING’S MOST HATED. Learn more at https://www.jpprag.com
Certain people, events, organizations, and storylines in wrestling history have gotten a bum rap. Some writers have presented overtly critical comments and outright lies as fact, and others have followed suit. Well no more! “In Defense of…” has one reason: to bring the truth to the wrestling fan!
Some dame walked into my office and said…
This one comes from our resident Stenographer, believe it or not. Stenographer?
Thanks, JP. Well, since I figured I’d have the next couple of weeks off, I thought I’d get you to defend my favorite wrestling show: WCW Thunder. Whenever something bad happens on RAW or SmackDown!, writers and smarks go “that was as bad as an episode of Thunder!” But Thunder was enjoyable, and doesn’t deserve to always be associated with bad wrestling.
Thanks Stenographer, that does sound like a good case!
Like Stenographer said, WCW Thunder gets a bad rap for being terrible Wrestling. But was it as bad as many would have you believe? Or was WCW Thunder truly an enjoyable program that more than pulled its weight in WCW. Only one way to find out, and that’s to start the case!
Where the heck did this show come from?
That’s the question that must have been running through Eric Bischoff’s head. After a very successful 1997, Turner Sports and TBS wanted to capitalize on the success of WCW and Nitro and expand the brand outward. Without consulting Bischoff, Turner (the company, not the person) added WCW Thursday Thunder to TBS’s lineup. Bischoff had just a few weeks (over the holidays) to pull together a set, an arena and taping schedule, and start writing the program. But feeling up to the challenge, Bischoff did not let the fact that he felt Thunder would cause an overexposure of WCW deter him.
Thus, Thunder premiered with a bang:
Thunders debut was on January 8, 1998. How do I know this for certain? January 8 is my birthday and I joked that WCW was giving me a new TV show for a present that year. I seem to also think that the main event on that show was DDP vs. Nash 1-on-1, but am not entirely sure. One thing I do remember for sure though was that it was on that Thunder that WCW made the announcement for the Hogan vs. Sting rematch at Superbrawl after the title had been held up due to the Starrcade silliness.
The following week continued on top of that first week. The show featured seven matches, including Chris Jericho defeating Eddie Guerrero (a workrate dream match), Rey Mysterio winning the Cruiserweight Championship from Juventud Guerrera (pre-‘Juice’ days, a lot more real Lucha style), and Lex Luger and DDP teaming up to defeat Kevin Nash and Randy Savage.
With little promotion, no pre-planning, and no support from Turner corporate, the first episode of Thunder pulled in a solid 4.0 rating and the subsequent week held at a 3.6 rating (which was higher than a recent week’s RAW rating at the time of this writing). But Thunder would soon start rolling in the numbers.
As the weeks went on, Thunder continued to pull in ratings in the high 3’s and low 4’s. Even on the weeks when Thunder was moved to Wednesdays because of a baseball game it would still get low 3’s. This would all continue until July 1999, when ratings slipped into the high 2’s as WCW’s popularity waned. The ratings would continue to slide and hang in the upper 1’s and lower 2’s until the end of WCW. Even with Thunder being taped after Nitro, it was still pulling in ratings double to triple anything ECW on TNN got. Relative to the times, WCW Thunder was pulling in strong ratings.
But one would have to ask, what were they showing that would make people want to tune in?
Where are my main eventers?
The biggest lie I read all the time about Thunder is that nothing important ever happened on the show, and the main eventers were never there. That could not be further from the truth. Look, we already saw that Lex Luger, DDP, Kevin Nash, and Randy Savage were on the premier episodes of Thunder, but that would not be the end. The Giant and Scott Hall main evented the following week, Bill Goldberg made regular appearances, Ric Flair most definitely fought on the show, Sting defended the championship, and even Hollywood Hogan lost a match to the Macho Man.
Not only that, but titles changed hands on Thunder. Above we mentioned the change in the Cruiserweight Championship. On the June 6, 1998 edition of Thunder the World Tag Team Championships changed hands. Even the World Heavyweight Championship changed hands, including one where Kevin Nash defeated Jeff Jarrett and Scott Steiner in a three-way dance on May 24, 2000. These are just a few of the examples, but most definitely not all.
Still, many complain that it was not always main eventers topping the program. One week, DDP would be defending the World Heavyweight Championship against Bam Bam Bigelow. Two weeks later, the show would be headlined with David Flair vs. Barry Horowitz. Seems rather inconsistent, doesn’t it?
But consider this: WCW was using Thunder as a chance to give talent more exposure. Mid-carders getting into the main event gave them a chance to show that they were worth it, that they could go all the way. And it was not just mid-carders fighting other mid-carders. DDP defended his title against Stevie Ray, Hollywood Hogan defeated the Disciple, Evan Karagias defeated Randy Savage (you read that right) and Konnan and Rey Mysterio defeated the Outsiders. Where else but Thunder could the mid-carder work his way up and fight in the main event? There was no room for that on the superstar-filled Nitro, but Thunder gave them a chance to shine.
Not only that, but it was not just the people who were spotlighted. The US title was often in the main event, as were the Television and Tag Team Championships. These belts (which hardly get recognition now, if they even exist), were given top spots on Thunder. And who were often around those belts? Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho, Booker T, Eddie Guerrero, Raven, Perry Saturn, Scott Steiner, and basically everyone considered to be the top workers in WCW. Thunder was their chance to shine, and get their belts a nice shine, too.
Since the real fight was on Monday Night, WCW got to have a little more fun with Thunder and try new things. For instance, on the June 18, 1998 episode of Thunder, Masa “My Hero” Chono and Hiroyoshi Tenzan defended the IWGP Tag Team Championships against Davey Boy Smith and Jim Neidhart. Where else in America could you see a major Japanese title defended? How often are other organizations even mentioned on national TV, nonetheless have their titles defended?
Or how about this one: On the July 16, 1998 Konnan and DDP teamed up to face Curt Henning and Scott Hall. Why was this a big deal? Because Konnan was a member of nWo Wolfpac and DDP a member of team WCW. This was the first time EVER that a WCW and nWo person teamed up. nWo had fought itself, but at no point had they ever joined forces with a WCW person. This was a first, and it happened on Thunder.
Also, Thunder was pretty much the unique home of Marty Jannetty. Without much fanfare, Jannetty would come out for weeks busting his butt in the ring and putting on a solid match with everyone. People talked about his matches in the WWE a few months before this writing as if they were his first wrestling appearances in a decade. But that is not true as WCW gave him a chance to show what he was made of on Thunder in 1998 and 1999.
Towards the end of WCW, Thunder became the home of new stars. A.J. Styles (you might have heard of him) and Air Paris were teaming regularly and beginning to show the new generation of the wrestling game. Thunder was all about the future of the business; it’s a shame that that future was cut short.
(Fun Fact: Scott Steiner was in both the first and last Thunder matches. He was on the winning side both times.)
More big surprises and that old Nitro feeling
Thunder was not just the home of future stars and unique events, but it also played an important role in the bigger scheme of WCW. On the January 26, 2000 episode of Thunder, Ric Flair returned to WCW television after a long absence. Hulk Hogan also made his return to WCW after a 4 ½ month absence on the February 2, 2000 episode of Thunder.
Of course, Thunder did not need big surprises to make it feel important. Despite being focused on younger talent and not trying to make every week a PPV, Thunder was still made to feel big. Notice something different about the lengths of RAW and SmackDown!? RAW always goes overtime (a leftover from the Monday Night Wars) while SmackDown! ends on time. It is a little distinction that makes RAW seem that much more important and give it that “anything can happen” feeling. Thunder actually shared this trait with Nitro, where both would go into overtime. Also, if Michael Buffer was the guest ring announcer for Nitro, you can guarantee that he would show up on Thunder. And who does not like to hear Michael Buffer announce La Parka?
Feel the Thunder
WCW Thunder constantly gets ripped into as if it were the worst show in wrestling. But Thunder was given solid talent to work with, from main eventers and their World titles to the workhorses and their championships to the future superstars of tomorrow. The ratings would back up the fan interest in the show, even during WCW’s waning years. The ratings were not the best ever at the end, but were much higher than ECW ever saw, and TNA has yet to see.
Big events happened on Thunder, from the return of stars to championship changes. And at the same time, unique events occurred from other organizations getting their titles on TV to the nWo and WCW teaming up for the first time. And Thunder was given the same rights as Nitro, with overrun main events and Michael Buffer doing the announcing.
Was every episode of Thunder the greatest night of wrestling? No. But on a weekly basis could it entertain the fans? You bet. How can anyone continually compare any bad event to Thunder when on any given week, Thunder could have been just as good as a PPV?
The defense rests.
After the Trial
IN THE CASE OF THE IWC VERSUS WCW THUNDER, WCW THUNDER HAS BEEN ACCUSED OF BEING A POINTLESS SHOW THAT HAD NO ENTERTAINMENT VALUE IN WRESTLING WHAT-SO-EVER.
With 89.4% of the vote, WCW Thunder was found:
Another lower voting (compared to the likes of Goldberg or the Fingerpoke of Doom), but high scoring case. I was happy to find many other people who enjoyed Thunder for what it was, and even more who were like me and preferred Thunder to Nitro. Who knew? Now it’s IWC fact!
A number of people shared their personal memories and experiences with Thunder. Here are a couple that were of particular interest:
Ahh, so many great memories of Thunder. Hell I can remember Thunder being my 2nd wrestling event that I ever attended, in the Roanoke Civic Center [Coliseum] in Roanoke VA. To me, Thunder was just as big as Nitro, and the best part at that time was they were taping two weeks’ worth of shows in one night.
Ahh the memories of that night, Juventud Guerrera and Rey Mysterio Jr (Damn the WWE for dropping the Jr) went at it to a 15 minute time limit draw, and thankfully were allowed to finish the match. So many great high spots in that match, that you just can’t catch in the WWE Smack Down! [Cruiserweight] [division].
And by the end of the night Goldberg had won yet another victory as the World Heavyweight Champion.
I thank you for letting me relive my [fondness] memories, and find WCW Thunder… NOT GUILTY!
Some of my fonder wrestling memories actually come from what was consider WCW’s “B” and “C” shows. While Nitro was hammering out 3 hour shows and (I believe), blurring the line between PPV spectacle and week-to-week build, Thunder was a two hour show with [its] own feel. I enjoyed having guys from the Flock or some of the better workers getting the nudge. Seeing a guy as entertaining as “The Mecca” Shawn Stasiak getting some quality TV time before he became a planet. Seeing an entire show dedicated to the cruiserweights. Seeing other belts get a little spotlight once and awhile.
Rick Steiner during his television title run had many prominent matches on the show with some of the younger guys, giving them a little rub. That’s the sort of thing you weren’t seeing on Nitro, that’s for sure. I mean, why have them if they don’t mean anything? WCW Thunder made them mean something, and I hold nothing against them.